WRITTEN BY BESTSELLING AUTHOR JOANNA COURTNEY
Wed or no, it was in Ailith’s power to give her sweetheart strength for the battle…
Ailith ran a stalk of corn through her fingers, scattering the ripe seeds impatiently into the pile of others around her skirts. She hated waiting. When would her father return?
Lord Osgar had ridden out confidently yester-eve to arrange “the finest wedding in Northumbria” for her but, although the sun was now high in the sky, he was still not back.
“Mayhap he has a sore head from celebrating?” Ailith consoled herself and jumped to her feet.
The harvest-gathering was almost done and she should be helping her mother supervise the laying of the tables in the meadow of their Bamburgh estate to feast the workers. She’d come out in the hope of catching her father riding over the hills, but she could linger no longer.
As she headed back towards the great hall, Ailith’s thoughts turned to Eadburg. Would he ride in with her father? Her heart picked up a beat in hope.
She’d been uncertain when her mother had suggested she might like to get to know the heir to a nearby estate better. Lord Eadburg was so tall and handsome she’d feared he might be arrogant, but it had taken only one evening for her to learn that he was gentle and kind and, best of all, made her laugh as no-one had before. She was sure she could happily spend her life with him and could not wait for that life to start.
Yet, wait she must.
Maybe it was bad news and he was dragging his heels to bring it to her?
Where was her father? Maybe his horse had lost a shoe? Or negotiations were taking a long time? Or maybe it was bad news and he was dragging his heels to bring it to her? Maybe Eadburg’s father had – God forbid – said no?
Ailith shuddered. Surely not? She and Eadburg had been courting all this year of 1066. Their parents had encouraged them to dance together at feasts and the two families had shared a table on many occasions. The final agreement was surely just a formality?
She trailed into the meadow and her mother, Lady Winfrid, looked up and smiled kindly at her.
“No sign? No matter. He will be here anon, Ailie. Your father would never miss a party and what a party it will be with a rich harvest and a betrothal to celebrate.”
“We do not know that for certain as yet,” Ailith grumbled.
“Ah, my sweeting, ’tis as sure as King Harold is on the throne of England.”
“Not sure at all then,” Ailith flung back, “for everyone knows there are wolves over the seas waiting to snatch that throne from him.”
“And everyone knows,” her mother replied staunchly, “that all good Englishmen will fight to stop that. None shall beat us on our own soil.”
“I pray not, mother,” Ailith agreed, humbled, “but…”
She caught the sudden sound of hoofs
At that moment, her sharp ears caught the sound of hoof beats. She ran to the yard to help her father from the saddle.
“You are alone, Father?” she said, looking hopefully round.
“I am.” His voice was gruff, and as he put out his big hand to clasp Ailith’s arms, she felt a cold dread creep over her skin.
“Did… did it not go well?”
Lord Osgar looked briefly heavenward.
“Lord Dunstan,” he said eventually, “is far more calculating than I had reckoned.”
“He does not want me as wife for his son?” Ailith’s voice cracked and she bit her lip, annoyed at herself.
“No. I mean, yes, my sweet, he does. He just wishes to… delay.”
“Delay?” Winfrid joined them. “Why?”
Osgar sighed heavily.
“He fears for the security of the country – and for the lives of his sons if they should have to fight to defend it.”
Ailith’s heart clenched
“But surely, Father, if there is such a threat it would be better to wed sooner?”
“I agree but Lord Dunstan sees it differently. He has several sons, as you know, and – he told me this quite calmly – if Eadburg were to die he wants no part of his estate entailed away upon a widow.”
Ailith sucked in her breath and Osgar put a consoling arm around her.
“Lord Dunstan is afraid, my sweet. He has cousins in the Orkney Isles and they expect the Viking, Harald Hardrada, at any day. He’s a fearsome warrior and Lord Dunstan’s sons are all of an age to fight.”
Ailith swallowed and looked across to her own brothers, thankfully still below the muster-age of twelve. They were kicking a pig’s bladder among the protesting chickens and getting under the feet of the cheerful procession of workers bringing the corn into the threshing barns. The sun was shining and snatches of song drifted on the light breeze. It was impossible to imagine a Viking warband threatening the peace.
“And you, Father?” Ailith whispered. “Will you fight?”
Osgar bowed his head.
“Of course. It is my duty.” He pulled her tight against his chest, her mother too, and his voice steadied. “When we have battered the Viking into the English soil he dares to try and seize, I will come home, Eadburg with me, and we will have a wedding finer than any in Northumbria. Now, we have a harvest feast to host, do we not? Come!”
He strode towards the meadow and Lady Winfrid hurried after him, leaving Ailith to fight back tears and pray they were all wrong.
It was scarce two days later when messengers pounded into the estate, confirming Lord Dunstan’s worst fears. The Vikings had attacked and, worse yet, had defeated a hastily assembled warband at Fulford and taken York.
King Harold himself was rumoured to be marching north and all able-bodied men must ride to his aid.
Within a day the estate was turned upside down as men of all ages, standing and abilities trickled into the yard to march south. All thoughts of weddings – fine or otherwise – were banished as the shadow of war fell upon their quiet land.
Ailith slept ill that night, so was already awake when she heard her name whispered urgently into the cool air. Springing from her bed, she grabbed her cloak and ducked outside.
“Eadburg!” She fell into his arms, all decorum forgotten.
“Ailith. I’m so glad I found you.” He glanced around. “I must be home by cockcrow to ride out with my father.”
“I fear so, though I prayed it would not come to this. I had other, sweeter, plans for this autumn.”
He was gazing at her with such fondness
She dared to look up at him and saw he was gazing at her with such fondness she could scarce breathe for the joy of it.
“I apologise for my father,” he told her. “For what he said about…”
“About not being saddled with a widow? Truly, Eadburg, I want that no more than he. Must you go?”
“You know I must but, Ailith, tell me you forgive his harsh words? Tell me you consent to be my wife if… when I return?”
“You truly wish it?”
“More than anything.”
“Then I consent with all my heart – though we still need his permission.”
“I will get it, once the fighting is done.” He grimaced and she clutched him close.
“Eadburg? What is wrong?”
“I am afraid. I fight well in training but this is real.”
“I am afraid too,” Ailith told him.
“Of what?” He looked surprised.
“Of losing you.”
He leaned down and their lips met
Their eyes locked and Ailith saw Eadburg’s darken before slowly he leaned down and their lips met, cautiously at first and then, as they felt the strength of each others’ feeling, with greater certainty. Ailith felt his fingers tangle in her hair as if he would hold onto her forever, and pressed tight against him, pouring her love into his brave body in the hope it would bring him safely home.
“If you are afraid,” she murmured when finally they pulled apart, “think of me – of this.”
“I shall,” he agreed, “and it will give me the strength of a bear.” He kissed her again. “Pray for me, Ailith.”
Then he was gone and she was waiting again.
Ailith prayed harder than ever, but still the days were agony. She cared little, in truth, for how fine her wedding was and even less for who sat on the throne, but she yearned for the safe return of Eadburg and her father and all the good men of Bamburgh.
“Why must they fight?” she moaned.
“This is England,” her mother insisted, “and must remain England.”
It was a noble sentiment but Winfrid watched the horizon constantly and Ailith knew she, too, wanted her menfolk home.
Her father was first, tired but with a smile on his dear face
At last they came. Her father was first, tired but with a smile on his dear face that was glorious to behold.
“We won!” he cried as women ran from every bower in the estate and every house in the village. “We took the Viking by surprise, sunning himself as he waited for his booty. England is safe.”
“You are safe,” Ailith cried gladly, “and you bring others safe too?”
Osgar’s eyes clouded.
“Not all, sadly, for the battle was long and fierce, but Lord Dunstan is safe and his sons besides – though not…”
He hesitated. Ailith could not bear it.
“Not what?” she demanded, shaking his arm. Osgar grabbed her hands.
“Eadburg is alive, my sweet, but gravely wounded. He took an axe in the shoulder, though he fought on like a hero.”
“Like a bear,” Ailith murmured to herself. “Is he coming home?”
“He follows on, his father with him. He will need a soft bed, Ailith.”
Ailith swallowed but nodded and went to sort the finest blankets and fleeces. It was scarcely done before she heard the sound of more horses and saw Lord Dunstan ride in, pale and old, and behind him a litter. She ran to it.
His skin even paler than his father’s
Poor Eadburg lay strapped down, his teeth gritted against the bumpy ride and his skin even paler than his father’s, but when he opened his eyes and saw Ailith a ghost of a smile crossed his face.
“Poor bear,” she said, stroking his hair back from his moist forehead and at that he truly did smile.
“I am back,” he managed, “but not in much state to claim a bride.”
She moved in to answer but Lord Dunstan had dismounted at her side and touched her arm gently.
“I am sorry,” he said.
“For what?” Ailith demanded.
“For everything. For not protecting my son as I should, for bringing him home damaged, for thinking it was worth waiting for war. I understand if you no longer wish to be allied to my family but I beg you, for my son’s sake, to consider our suit still.”
For a moment Ailith wanted to make Dunstan suffer as she had, but one look at his battle-weary face told her there had been enough suffering here.
“I would marry Eadburg,” she told him, “if you brought him back to me with no arms or legs.”
“Hey,” Eadburg protested weakly, “’tis not that bad. ’Tis but a torn shoulder. I shall be fit for our wedding, I assure you.”
“Perhaps not quite that soon,” Dunstan said, looking to Osgar.
“Duke William has invaded,” Osgar told them sadly. “And King Harold marches south to fight again.”
“Again?” Ailith’s heart moaned within her. “You will not go with him?”
“We must, my sweet. Tomorrow. But first – a wedding.”
“Now?” Ailith gasped.
Osgar nodded. “If you are ready?”
“Oh, I am ready,” she agreed, taking Eadburg’s hand to help him to his feet as someone rushed to fetch the priest.
So it was that Ailith was married standing in a dusty yard, in her workaday dress, with all those who could be called in from the fields to witness, and a hastily broached barrel for celebration.
To her it felt – as her father had promised – like the finest wedding in all Northumbria. Times were hard but joy should be seized wherever it could be found and Ailith and Eadburg seized it with both hands.
Tomorrow, sadly, men would ride to war again – but for tonight, they danced as if tomorrow need never be… and it was enough.